There’s a moment early on in Witcher 3 in which you save a merchant from a rampaging griffin. The beast ate his horses and was threatening to eat him before you assure him it’s safe. The poor man comes out from under his cart, trembling and frightened, thanking you, Geralt of Rivia, for saving his life.
The man was ugly, but not in the way most ugly videogame characters are ugly. He was ugly the way I’m ugly. Or, if you prefer to be an optimist, he was beautiful in the way I’m beautiful. His beard was wan and patchy. You could see his pores. His nose was slightly crooked. Crow’s feet crinkled at the edges of his eyes when he spoke.
When the camera zoomed in on him, I stopped playing for a moment and just stared at the screen, entranced. I know that writers, myself very much included, can embellish for effect, that this is possibly our job description, but let me assure you that I’m being 100% straight. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this imperfect, real-looking person on my screen. By happenstance I’ve been revisiting Star Wars: the Old Republic and the contrast with that game’s six perfect faces, repeated over and over, was startling, even when I grant that the visual style and technical demands are very different. I’ve never seen anything quite like Witcher 3.
This is where any discussion of the sprawling, messy, fascinating Witcher 3 starts for me. Everyone I’ve met in my adventures as Geralt has been uniquely made and accompanied by such high visual fidelity that I’ve quite honestly never experienced anything quite like it. I met a man with stray hairs on his face, the type you get when you shave a week’s growth of beard a bit too hastily. A young woman with a very natural looking overbite, barely noticeable at a glance but there nonetheless. Old people with wrinkles the way my parents have wrinkles, with deep laugh lines and weathered brows. People with zits and moles. Even the always beautiful elves and the sorceresses have the sorts of imperfections we find in real world beauty. It is an absolutely stunning achievement of both tech and visual design.
The end product of this relentless, realistic humanity is that I’ve found myself feeling, for the first time in a RPG since maybe Planescape: Torment, carried away with the game despite myself. I am not in charge of my time in Witcher 3. I’ve found myself repeatedly and consistently picking the most sympathetic option when a moral choice has to be made, even when it’s to my mechanical detriment. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, be a jerk to these people. I’m merciful. I decline to take their money for killing the monsters which torment them, even though I’m poor. The game’s elicited an emotional response from me with how real the people look and act. It is a decidedly un-me reaction to a RPG and I’ve found it a little jarring, though not at all unpleasant. I feel a bit like Data in a Star Trek the Next Generation episode, discovering why people laugh or kiss.
The way the game forces you to confront that humanity is really the game’s main motif. Not the combat, which is pretty standard dodge and swing swordplay you can find in any number of games. Not the story, which is engaging but hews closely to what is by now quotidian allegiance to the war-torn dark fantasy the world’s enthralled with. It’s all of these hairy, misshapen, wonderful people filling the canvass which make it more than another entry in an increasingly crowded field of open world RPGs.
Witcher 3 wants to remind you that humans are complicated. Often times, the people of the Northern Realms are nasty, both to one another and to nature. They war. They say and do terrible things to one another and to Geralt. It’s caught between two worlds, the fantasy world of griffins and godlings and a retrospective glance at the “real” Middle Ages, which was (ask anyone!) a time of misery and muck. We like muck, in our real world 2015. We want our antiheroes or our not at all redeemable bastards, onscreen and in-game. We’re drowning in them, from Walter White to Dexter Morgan to gritty, real, dark-as-dark-can-be interpretations of comic book superheroes.
And then there are moments of aspiration and kindness. Witcher 3 is about husbands and wives, sons and daughters, chatting with one another, helping each other. I can’t count the number of times in the game that a quest is set up by a family who needs help. And in so many games, when that happens, the man who needs help wants to come with you to prove his heroic mettle or the woman with four kids in a medieval hut is perfectly beautiful to drive home just how great you are, a trophy for a trophy case in a fantasy landscape populated, apparently, exclusively by supermodels.
Not so here. In a media dominated by the notion that physical worth is the only worth, Witcher 3 puts you in a world where people love one another simply because they’re people. Where that peasant woman with the four kids isn’t a supermodel but she isn’t a bad artist’s version of ugly, either. She’s a mom, maybe 40, and she looks like a mom of 40. And her husband, who asks you to fight the werewolf terrorizing the village, is a dad who is exactly as heroic looking and seeming as real dads are, which is not very heroic at all.
There are times that the game wallows in grotesquery. This is undeniable, particularly in the main quest, where the reminders of how nasty Geralt’s world is become heavy-handed and tedious. It’s maybe an odd thing, that the main storyline sometimes suffers most from the sense that it’s trying too hard, rather than the side quests. It’s not the first piece of dark fantasy media to do this—Game of Thrones’ current season comes roaring to mind—and it won’t be the last. The path of least resistance when aiming for the in vogue dark drama atmosphere is to err on the side of too much. Too much murder, too much sex, too much grime. One reference sets the stage, two compounds the knowledge, three begins to linger for its own sake. The mark of a good storyteller is often in what’s not said rather than what is and I wish, in spots, this had been followed.
That said, this willingness to gleefully slosh around in the bad of the world isn’t the rule. When I note that Witcher 3 is actually better about this than its most obvious counterparts, I’m sincerely not damning with faint praise. The moments in which the grimness of the Northern Realms are simultaneously too gross and remarkably boring are far outweighed by the bulk of the game’s characterizations, which are subtle, often realistic, and sometimes charming. There have been times where I’ve simply put the game aside, where the emotional impact of what was going on was just right. I was sated. It was enough in the way that you get enough of a good movie or a good TV series and there are scant few games where that’s true for me.
There is a vein of nihilism in the modern wave of heavy dramas, one that says that the greatest works of our protagonists will come to naught. We die alone and we usually die violently, whether that violence is physical or psychic. And that’s here in Witcher 3. It is of a piece with its peers and influences. The saturation level of this type of story is almost certainly too much for many. I think that’s more than healthy and reasonable. Hell, it’s become too much for me most of the time. I was very wary of even starting the game because of that very reason.
But when I think of my time in Witcher 3, which is still going, I think mainly of the quest for Ciri, your adoptive daughter. I think of mages with freckles and villagers working fields after your drive away their tormenters. I think of it as a game which says that all we have is each other, as family and friends. As people, whose lives are short but brilliant. As a game that says that what makes life worth living and struggling for isn’t trying for perfection but our common imperfections. It’s aspiration by way of mundanity and I don’t know that I’ve played anything quite like it.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.